Recounting a Tale of Counting and Telling

Whether You're Talking Numbers or Words, Things Have a Proper Order

That Would Be Telling: In German ‘zahlen’ (to count) is similar to ‘erzählen’ (to tell).
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That Would Be Telling: In German ‘zahlen’ (to count) is similar to ‘erzählen’ (to tell).

By Philologos

Published January 12, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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In the wake of my December 13, 2013, column on gematria, the rabbinic art of finding significance in the numerical value of the letters of Hebrew words, Rabbi Carl M. Perkins has sent me an article of his about the existence of gematria already in the Bible. In it, the Dutch Bible scholar Casper Labuschagne is quoted as saying:

“For the Biblical scribes, writing entailed composing and composing necessarily involved counting. In fact, [the Hebrew word] sefer, ‘writing,’ ‘document,’ ‘book,’ and sofer, ‘scribe,’ ‘enumerator,’ ‘secretary,’ derive from one and the same verbal root s-f-r, meaning ‘to count, ‘to number,’ ‘to report,’ and ‘to recount.’ This means that the biblical writings in general… were meticulously composed according to compositional techniques in which counting played a crucial role.”

I don’t wish to get involved in a discussion of gematria in the Bible, a worthy subject in its own right. Rather, I would like to comment on the interesting fact that a verbal relationship between counting and narrating is not limited to Hebrew. (To whose list of s-f-r words one might also add mispar, a number, and sippur, a story.) Such a linkage exists in English, too — and not only in “count” and “recount,” two words mentioned by Labuschagne. We also find it in the verb “to tell,” which has the second, now archaic meaning of “to count,” as in a phrase like “to tell [the beads on] a rosary.”

Nor is English the only language that resembles Hebrew in this respect. German has zahlen, “to count,” and erzahlen, “to tell”; in Dutch this is tellen and vertellen; in Danish, taelle and fortaelle. All these languages belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family — but a “count-tell” relationship is not restricted to it. In the Romance family of Indo-European, we encounter the same thing. In French, for example, compter is “to count,” and conter is “to tell” or “to relate.” In Italian it’s contare and reccontare. In Spanish a single verb, contar, means both “to count” and “to tell,” so that cuenta is a numerical reckoning or a bill, and cuento is a story.

There are, no doubt, other languages I’m not familiar with that have a similar feature. (The third major European branch of Indo-European, Slavic, does not seem to be one of them.) Why should this be so?

It certainly isn’t because all such languages practiced gematria. Nor is it because the “count — tell” relationship in them goes back to some common ancient source. Semitic languages like Hebrew are unrelated to Indo-European ones, and the Hebrew root s-f-r has nothing to do with ancient Germanic or with Latin computare, from which our French, Italian and Spanish verbs derive. Some other explanation must be sought.

Let’s start with the Hebrew root s-f-r. “He counted” in Hebrew is “hu safar,” while “he told” is “hu sipper,” using the pi’el construction. Both are related to the Akkadian (old Babylonian) verb shaparu, whose original meaning was “to send,” but which in time came to mean “to send a letter,” and eventually, “to tell” or “to relate,” since this is what letters often do. The root has like meanings in other Semitic languages, but only in Hebrew did it take on the additional meaning of “to count,” which was clearly a later development.

In the Romance languages, on the other hand, the process was reversed. In classical Latin, computare — the source of our English “compute” — originally meant only “to count” or “to do sums.” Not until Late Latin, from which the various Romance languages evolved, did it take on the sense of “to relate.” Yet classical Latin had its own “count” — “tell” pair in enumerare, a verb that derived from numerus, “number” but also had the sense of “to narrate.”

And now for our third case: Old English tellan, the ancestor of our modern “to tell.” Its oldest meaning was “to count,” as it was in other Germanic languages, which later added the meaning of “to relate” with the help of prefixes like German -er and Dutch ver-. In addition, however, tellan in Old English also meant “to put [something] in order.”

And that, of course, is the link between counting and telling. To count is to put numbers in their proper order, and to tell a story or relate an incident is to put events in their proper order, first things first and last things last. This is why the two things are associated in so many languages, including Hebrew. Whether some form of gematria exists in certain books of the Bible or not is something I don’t presume to judge. On the face of it, it’s not inconceivable; it’s just not the reason for the double duty performed by the root s-f-r. In its origins, as parallels from other languages demonstrate, this had no connection with numbers playing a role in the “compositional techniques” of biblical narrative.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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